What is Ask MetaFilter?
December 9, 2003 7:50 AM   Subscribe

MetaFilter 2.0 - Ask MetaFilter is born. What is Ask MetaFilter? [more inside]

So in a fun experiment with recursion I'm going to ask the AskMe forum what groundrules/guidelines should be for Ask MetaFilter. And yes, obviously I realize that it's not up to me (or anyone else here other than Matt), and that this really isn't mature enough to generate final conclusions, and that the plan is to let it run unrestrained for a while to see what falls out. But questions about what this is and how it should work still seem legitimate, and are going to be asked anyway. So why not.

Should we have categories? What types of questions are allowed? Is this available only to MeFi members? Will there be moderation? Will we have real hard rules (which MeFi lacks on purpose)? How will we avoid having ideological arguments drown out good advice? Will we everything? That is - Will users who constantly provide good answers be flagged as such? Will great questions filter to the top? How will avoid the AskMe version of the double post? Will "pancake" type in-jokes be allowed? Will thread-ends and chat be allowed? if someone is banned from Ask MetaFilter are they banned from MetaFilter as well? Is there such a thing as a dumb question? How will we prevent dumb questions?

I see a lot of parallels with the distributed journalism app we started a while ago. Should one of the end goals of each thread be a white paper document with a distillation of the threads conclusions?

It's only been up for about 18 hours, but it's already obvious to me that Ask MetaFilter (AskMe? AxMe?) will be huge. This is something MeFis have been chafing to be able to do for years. You spend all your time chatting with people about geek stuff, and politics, and movies, but there's this huge ocean of questions that we've agreed can not ever be asked. Well now the Pandora's box is opened and we can put all those hanging "help desk" questions to the MeFi Scooby crowd.

One thing I wonder about is how much this could be extended. So Matt has finally broken down and implemented the help desk forum we've been asking for for years. What else might he kick loose? Maybe we could have a selflink.metafilter.com. Or a local.europe.metafilter.com.

The mind reels at the possibilities. I'm also wondering how far we can draw Matt out before he rebels. New memberships *and* a whole new section added at the same time? Someone tell Matt's boss he has too much time on his hands.
posted by y6y6y6 to Computers & Internet (41 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say the rest of metafilter serves as a good model. Keep it simple, keep it moderated by one voice. I can forsee a huge pandora's box of hurt feelings if the system is made to include voting, charging per question, karma and the like. The question then becomes, who moderates it? This seems like a great moment for Matt to dip his feet in delegating site tasks.
posted by machaus at 8:04 AM on December 9, 2003

I wonder how useful the standard sort-by-date weblog format is for this kind of forum. It makes much more sense to organize the questions by category and topic, rather than the date the question was posed. I recognize that reconfiguring AskMe to organize the content differently than MeFi or MeTa would require more work by Matt, and perhaps that's not feasible. On the other hand, I'd like to see AskMe organized a little like Paul Ford's Ftrain. You'll notice that Ftrain had a sidebar to note recent entries, a sidebar to navigate the hierarchy, and below each entry are links to navigate the site by time or entry. Add a search box and you've got an ideal setup for AskMe.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:13 AM on December 9, 2003

I guess an easy compromise would be to add categories, as in MetaTalk, so the posts could be easily sorted. That would narrow down at least some of the searching.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:16 AM on December 9, 2003

Maybe if Matt added a way to add meta info to the question being asked, it would be easy to sort things out in categories. Very much like he does on Ticketstubs.

Even if he doesn't implement a pay to ask a question system, he ought to drop a "Was this helpful? If so, please donate to MeFi" sort of tip jar feature. That way he doesn't have to worry about profit sharing with the people helping out in AskMeFi.
posted by riffola at 8:20 AM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: "hurt feelings if the system is made to include voting, charging per question, karma and the like."

Hmmmm..... I see hurt feelings if it's just another MetaFilter where we can ask help desk questions. Think about how we typically respond to dumb questions in MetaFilter - Name calling, in-jokes, pleas for calm, and then a trailing off period where we make pointless sexual references.

Matt has been saying for years, and at length, that he doesn't like it. But it continues. It seems to me that a help desk forum has a *need* for signal over noise, whereas in MetaFilter it's just something nice.

How do we get there other than moderation, voting, karma, etc? I would agree that those things have proved to be far less than perfect in other places. But without something to limit the chatty pancakes crap, I don't see the point.

"The question then becomes, who moderates it?"

I think the key is to engineer an automated way to moderate. Surely we can come up with something better than Slashdot. Since membership is coveted I think members have more of a vested interest.

I've always liked the idea of a karma system based on fuzzy logic. But my math isn't good enough to actually formulate something like that. Maybe game theory has a solution as well. maybe rather than software engineers solving this we should enlist math gurus.
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:25 AM on December 9, 2003

y6: I see a lot of parallels with the distributed journalism app we started a while ago. Should one of the end goals of each thread be a white paper document with a distillation of the threads conclusions?

There needs to be at least some kind of summary mechanism, or we run the risk of repeated questions on the same-but-subtly-different topics because people have nothing to which they can refer. But where do the summaries come from? Who authors them? Who maintains them? Are there "guides" or "moderators" who accept responsibility for an area of their own particular interest?

Perhaps from an interface standpoint, AskMe could be in two parallel parts: the new "library" of collected MeFite wisdom and this existing mechanism for asking questions that aren't answered in the library.

(For the record, I'm very, very much in support of AskMe in some form or other - the "What's your favorite pie recipe?!" threads woudl have a home, off the front page of MetaFilter, and that will be a good thing.)
posted by JollyWanker at 8:46 AM on December 9, 2003

For now, anyway, I like having all the questions on one page, instead of split off into separate category pages which would take time to click through separately.

I also wonder whether there needs to be a disclaimer, so that someone (not even necessarily a member) who takes advice given here doesn't come back later and sue. Some of the topics, especially, may branch out into medical or legal issues, and I'm not sure what if any responsibilities the web host has on those things. For example, check out the terms and conditions of WebMD, a site that talks about medical issues. Clearly more serious than AskMe, but a simple disclaimer (aka, site is for informational purposes only, not intended to substitute for professional advice, reliance is at own risk) can't be a bad idea.

If we put disclaimers on coffee cups, maybe AskMe needs one, too.
posted by onlyconnect at 9:30 AM on December 9, 2003

No politics, please. Please, please, please, please, please!
posted by timeistight at 9:53 AM on December 9, 2003

What timeistight said. That thread immediately struck me as inappropriate, but I hesitated to say something since no guidelines have been established. (Seems like it'd work better in the blue.)
posted by Vidiot at 10:28 AM on December 9, 2003

it's deleted now--what did it say?

Are personal questions allowed? Or only about stuff and products and techy things?
posted by amberglow at 10:55 AM on December 9, 2003

Agree on the no politics. Perhaps a guideline might be "Ask questions for which it might be reasonably expected there is a consensus answer", or something better phrased...
posted by normy at 11:00 AM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: I've also wondered about regional questions. Right after I posted my photo question I thought, "Christ Jon, most users don't live in Southern California and thus will be justified in not giving a rat's ass."

But I got great answers, so maybe there is a place for it.

A thought - We're already tracking what users live close to me based on zip code. Maybe a "local" flag could be used so that only users within 100 miles of you would see the question.
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:08 AM on December 9, 2003

it's deleted now--what did it say?

Someone actually asked how they should vote in the San Francisco mayoral election.

Back to the subject:

1. I also think no politics should be an iron-clad rule.

2. Categories (and even sub-categories) will help for archival purposes. I would recommend keeping the most-recent-first format as the main page (for those who keep up), but also allow sorting by categories.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:09 AM on December 9, 2003

For what it's worth, this is all great feedback. I'll have to do some major re-engineering to categorize it up, but I agree that the weblog format (time-based sorting only) is far from optimal for this kind of content.
posted by mathowie at 11:21 AM on December 9, 2003

Just thinking out loud... We don't appear to have seen it yet, but what about the problem page genre? "Should I leave my girl/boyfriend?", "My room-mate is a jerk, what can I do?", "My best friend has invited me to her wedding but her mother wants to kill me...", that sort of stuff? Welcome, or not?
posted by normy at 11:22 AM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

In the Metatalk thread I came out in favor of most everything and anything, but yeah, no politics. I don't want this place to limit itself to techy things and html help, however, since I like "how to make the perfect cup of coffee" and so on. Categories would be a plus though, even if they start out as just "tech" and "other".

I would dig the hell out of the "problem page genre", myself, but I'm probably an impulsive minority.
posted by furiousthought at 11:26 AM on December 9, 2003

I think categories and/or a search function are a must, if there's any way to easily use the existing gizmos in MeTa. Even more than MeTa, there is a high risk of repeat questions in AskMe. I was able to use MetaTalk's search engine to pretty much answer my own question this morning without annoying anyone else; I think volume will dictate a need for the same thing here.
posted by nickmark at 11:31 AM on December 9, 2003

We're already tracking what users live close to me based on zip code. Maybe a "local" flag could be used so that only users within 100 miles of you would see the question.

'Course that would put Miguel, sgt.serenity, dg, matteo and I all in the same locality :>

I don't actually see the local stuff being a problem. It's an opportunity for armchair travelling, at least. And the Dear Abby kind of questions might be kind of fun.

I'm really loving this, BTW. And the green is kind of restful.
posted by timeistight at 11:50 AM on December 9, 2003

I like the fact that there is no direct link to AskMe from MeFi's front page: that should cut down on the traffic somewhat.

Some possible categories:

matters of fact ("How can you tell if a timing belt has been replaced?")

matters of taste ("What's your favorite pie recipe?")

um . . . matters of the heart ("Two of my bridesmaids hate each other! OMG what shall I do?")
posted by Prospero at 12:09 PM on December 9, 2003

I got an email about a year ago that was firmly in the problem page genre. It was a real ethical dilema (it was a question of how to sell a house with a sex offender in the neighborhood) and the person was very sincere, I think a question like it everyone once in a while would be fine, but get tiresome quickly if it were a regular thing.

We'll see. It's looking like further programming improvements probably won't happen for a few weeks though, I've got a run of deadlines and holiday mumbo jumbo.
posted by mathowie at 12:14 PM on December 9, 2003

matters of taste ("What's your favorite pie recipe?")

I don't know how useful that is. I'd say specific questions will do better, since people get detail and a goal. I bet this would go over much better:

"I've got three people coming over, it's Fall, and I live in New Hampshire, what kind of pie should I make given the fruits available to me and insert level of cooking expertise?"
posted by mathowie at 12:17 PM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "further programming improvements probably won't happen for a few weeks though"

Understood, but I would lobby you for the following:

Add a few things to the database *now* so that you can use them in future programming. Since the current format seems to work just fine even though it's not ideal I can see "future programming" staying on the shelf for well into the next year. Not to be snarky, but that's just the way these things work.

But if you added columns for category, keywords, and descriptive title now, you'd have them already, rather than having to go back an categorize 1000 threads. And even more than categories I think keywords will be very helpful. We may end up with 50 categories. A search on "Nikon CoolPix" in the keywords might be more useful.
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:48 PM on December 9, 2003

There needs to be at least some kind of summary mechanism, or we run the risk of repeated questions on the same-but-subtly-different topics because people have nothing to which they can refer. But where do the summaries come from? Who authors them? Who maintains them? Are there "guides" or "moderators" who accept responsibility for an area of their own particular interest?

Maybe the author of each AskMe thread, within 10 days of it first being posted (should give enough time for thread to run down), has to write a 2-3 sentence summary of the problem posted and/or result reached. We could make it impossible to post another AskMe thread before summary was written and posted to wherever index was created for that purpose (in the index, the summary would link to the thread), if that was desired.

Or better yet, how about making someone write their own index entry when they're first posting, in the same way posters to MeFi have to come up with a "Post Title." For example, this AskMe post could have been entered as Category: Food; Issue: Coffee, caffeine concentrations in hot vs. cold drinks. Then have an index page listing each category by issue.
posted by onlyconnect at 12:49 PM on December 9, 2003

Add a few things to the database *now*

Pretty much every single thing requires that I build new db tables and completely redo it, since it's all currently tied into the MetaTalk db and functionality.

How about we call this "testing month" and January is when the magic starts happening?
posted by mathowie at 12:55 PM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: "since it's all currently tied into the MetaTalk db and functionality."

I was afraid of that. No worries. Maybe a new table that maps to the primary key in the MetaTalk db?


"Maybe the author [...] has to write a 2-3 sentence summary of the problem posted and/or result reached."

And also revise the question. Several times already the original question wasn't the right one, even though the poster got the answer they were looking for.

This post is a perfect example. The poster asked "What is perl?" But the real question was, "What language should I learn to get started in server-side programming?"

The final answer, which the poster seems happy with, is a rather bad answer to the question "What is Perl?"

Maybe that's what onlyconnect meant. I'm babbling.....
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:08 PM on December 9, 2003

I really like this green!

I am thinking that repetition is going to become an issue before long (how long between requests for digital camera recommendations) I am assuming that product information sharing is going to become bigger than the current posts reflect. What if posters had to select from 2 popup lists when posting? A category search might help navigate via sidebar general topics. Electronics>Cameras or Home Improvement>Gardening etc. would help people locate previous requests and cut down on the noise.

Bring on the Google ads!
posted by thirteen at 1:39 PM on December 9, 2003

In re: categories and subcategories -- Please please please don't make the hierarchy go deeper than 1 or 2 levels, otherwise we'll face the same questions over and over and over again since the previous answers weren't in the exact subsubsubcategory the latest question-asker thought to check on.

The simpler and more googlish (as opposed to google-answers, which is fairly horrid and has no community to speak of) this is, the better for everyone it will be.
posted by majick at 1:45 PM on December 9, 2003

I think it has to be 2 levels to be useful, but I agree with majick.
posted by thirteen at 2:10 PM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: "since the previous answers weren't in the exact subsubsubcategory the latest question-asker thought to check on"

From my own limit expertize in UI design I'd say you're going to have the same problem no matter how you limit the categories. Think about it this way - We have plenty of double posts on MetaFliter, and that's just one category!!! People will miss things even if it's right in front of them.

And you will *always* have the people who don't even bother to look, they'll just ask.

This is another good reason to charge a small fee. If you get charged even if you're question is deleted you're more likely to use more diligence in looking into prior answers.

And the keywords could help here as well. If two or more keywords matched keywords from a previous question you could prompt the user to look at those before letting them post.
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:22 PM on December 9, 2003

You guys are all engineers, aren't you?
posted by machaus at 3:18 PM on December 9, 2003

The other big feature I could add is simple post approval. You submit a question, which goes into a pile, then when approved goes up. There is an added benefit of recategorization and notification that the question has already been asked somewhere else.

Also, how do you design a database to handle 2 level categorization? two tables with child-parent IDs mapped to them?
posted by mathowie at 3:45 PM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: "Also, how do you design a database to handle 2 level categorization? two tables with child-parent IDs mapped to them?"

Hmmm..... that's interesting....... It would be better to abstract it out so that you had n-level categorization though, yes?

Maybe I'm not understanding what you mean. Do you want the ability to have an arbitrary number of categories with an arbitrary number of subcategories which can go arbitrarily deep? If so, that's something I've had to solve twice in the last couple months, and isn't bad. Let me know if you want schemas and code for that.

Or do you mean that you want an item to be in multiple categories?
posted by y6y6y6 at 4:05 PM on December 9, 2003

No politics should be rule 0. We really don't need another (any) place for the unending i/p threads.

I'm not sold on the idea of categories. Indicies and attributes, sure, but I'll look at pretty much everything and read what's interesting, same as always.

That said, a Dear Metafilter would be pretty cool.

On preview: a testing ground for which questions get posted is a great idea. Prefilter?
posted by bonehead at 4:15 PM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: "The other big feature I could add is simple post approval."

How about this idea:

At the top of the front page you display one random "pre-post" with a button that lets a user indicate if they think it should be opened to discussion. Then set a tipping point threshhold where anything that gets more thumbs ups than the threshold goes in as an official question for discussion. Anything that doesn't make the threshold within an hour goes in the bit bin.

You could make it smart by letting the ambient user volume determine the threshold. So if currently pages are being requested at 5000/hour the threshold might be 50 thumbs, but at night when the volume drops to 500/hour you'd only need 5.

The tricky bit here is calculating the current volume. I don't know how to do that. You could record very page view in the database, but that's not a good idea.
posted by y6y6y6 at 4:40 PM on December 9, 2003

y6y6y6 has posted 19 links and 1208 comments to MetaFilter
and 8 threads and 735 comments to MetaTalk

But he hasn't posted anything to AskMetaFilter yet? Well, obviously he has - so, will the AskMeFi threads and comments go on his (and everyone else's) profiles? Should they?

(1st disclaimer - this is probably a less-than important addition to the coding, and more trouble than it's really worth, but I thought someone should mention it).

(2nd disclaimer - I'm not trying to pick on y6y6y6, he was just there at the time).

(3rd and final disclaimer - I really like the overall idea, too!)
posted by yhbc at 5:51 PM on December 9, 2003

I would also love some of the front page functionality with the pulldown menu. this place is going to fill up fast, you'll want to be able to quickly located the threads you've posted in.

Also, I think the question asker should be able to either revise the question [with the original question hanging out someplace so people understand the first spate of answers] or close the question once they have an answer. There shoudldbe a way, perhaps, to keep collecting responses, but for the question asker to indicate that they are satisfied with whatever responses they get.
posted by jessamyn at 6:46 PM on December 9, 2003

I'm not sold on the notion that there should be no doubleposts ever on AskMe. The rationale for no double posts on Metafilter is that Metafilter is theoretically about finding new things on the web. If it's been posted before, it's not new. You know, the whole, "it's about the links, not the discussion" mantra.

That doesn't apply to AskMetaFilter. Here, the meat of the site is in the discussion, and that's going to differentiate a lot of double posts in a way that doesn't usually happen on the blue. Plus, it's going to be just silly when it comes to a lot of tech questions: "what's the best digital camera" is of course going to change a year later and will probably warrant another post.

So I think the standard for double posts here should be more "has this question gotten annoying yet?" and less "this question was answered one year, three months and two days ago: go look it up." Aside from the no politics rule, I think this place should be looser than MetaFilter when it comes to front page posts. I'm not sure how thrilled I am at the prospect that it would be stricter.

:: read's jessamyn's post ::

See, I like her ideas very much, but if the question-asker was allowed to end a discussion, you'd basically have to allow double posts. Otherwise you'd have SoupNaziFilter. "Dong_resin was satisfied with that answer, WHY AREN'T YOU?"
posted by furiousthought at 7:03 PM on December 9, 2003

I think there's going to be a lot more doubleposts here than on metafilter, if nothing else than for the reasons that answers can change here more than on the general internet. A question about a good type of digitial camera to buy could end up popping up, what, once or twice a year? In the end, it might be a good idea to have a faq for the questions that don't change, but we're going to reanswer a lot of stuff over the years.
posted by stoneegg21 at 12:49 AM on December 10, 2003

Depending on volume, I'm a pretty big fan of fairly generic categories. This isn't epinions or amazon, I don't think things necessarily need to be broken down into electronics->home->entertainment or electronics->office->photocopiers style granularity.

In fact, I think explicit categories may not be the best way to go about doing it. I'm becomming a big fan of keywords. They categorize by default. It would probably take some time to establish common keywords, and describe to people who don't love data for the sheer fun of it all, but if I'm talking about a digital camera then I'd keyword it "electronics camera digital Canon A40" or whatever.

Each keyword gets a row (int_id, varchar_keyword) in the database with an index on the first 3 characters, and there's a table that links posts to keywords (int_postid, int_keywordid).

Theoretically categories can be added on top of keywords, so "Electronics" filters for the "electronics" keyword, but maybe also "computer" and "television" and "dvr" and a host of others. "Dear Metafilter" filters for "advice" and other appropriate keywords.

The big worry is how this impacts the database. I don't know nearly enough about the backend to even accurately guess.

Categories are by far the least impact (and to some degree you've already got categories working in the MetaTalk database, don't you Matt?) and actually would probably be pretty useful for AdSense if you're able to figure out a good way to make it work here. Although I guess keywords would, too.

(ObSlobber: loving it, Matt. Good on you.)
posted by cCranium at 6:19 AM on December 10, 2003

I know there is going to a lot of the same questions over and over. I expect there are new digital cameras worth considering every month. Quick navigation will put people together with the information. If the question is asked too often, it will not get answered.
posted by thirteen at 6:33 AM on December 10, 2003

A way to email comments posted in a member's question thread might be useful. That way when someone with the specific knowledge you're looking for stumbles on your question three weeks later, you'll get the info you need - right now I think most people are used to a thread dying out in a day or two and wouldn't think to check back here after that. That would mean guidelines on reducing chatter however, since people would be pissed to get their inboxes filling up with unnecessary/off-topic comments. Or a way to turn the "email me comments" option off.

What if people could say what they are "expert" in, if they want ("can give advice on writing Perl and Indian cooking"), and post that in their profiles in a searchable way? That could easily expand to getting notified of new questions in your category of expertise.... or new comments in questions of that category. Being able to flag your areas of interest in those ways whether "expert" or not would work too.

I actually like the open-ended friendly questions; they've been turned into interesting stats projects before, they're easy for newbies or shyer folk to dip a toe in and learn the ropes, they yield up great info (favorite internet radio stations come to mind), and since MeFi itself isn't really the place for them, yet they keep cropping up, why not here? It's not a bad fit.
posted by Melinika at 8:47 PM on December 10, 2003

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